Since the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began in late April, Muzammil Ahmed’s doorbell has been ringing nonstop. Every year for Ramadan, the Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan – one of the largest in the United States – shifts into cooking and baking mode, donating food to hundreds of people. This year its members have been dropping off food for Ahmed to bring to the medical workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic at Beaumont Wayne Hospital, where he is chief of staff.
Early in the pandemic, Ahmed’s hospital was converted to serve only COVID-19 patients due to its large intensive care unit. The group the hospital is a part of has handled about 70 percent of Michigan’s coronavirus patients.
Ramadan is normally a time for prayer, charity, community and spending time with family, but this year Muslims across the world are celebrating in isolation. For Muslim doctors on the coronavirus front lines, many of whom fast during the month, the isolation can become even more daunting.
Since Michigan locked down on March 24, Ahmed has practised social distancing from his friends and colleagues. Responding to the pandemic has increased his anxiety and stress, and seeing his friends and family would normally help him cope. He talks to them over the phone and Zoom, but it is not the same.
“Ramadan has a lot to do with sacrifice,” Ahmed said. “We’ve been deprived of those things for the past month now, and as Ramadan kicks in you realise, wow, in some ways the last month has been a form of Ramadan.”
That is why the donations by the community have been welcomed by all.
Earlier this month, a woman in her senior year of high school rang his doorbell, placed a box of Ramadan cookies on the small table outside, and stepped back. They chatted about where she wants to go to college, standing about eight feet (2.4 metres) apart.
“It’s a great way to replace the usual breaking of the fast that we have for Ramadan,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “It’s just a great way to say, ‘hey, we’re thinking of you.'”
The donation of food to hospitals during Ramadan grew out of an earlier effort to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) to doctors and nurses on the front lines.
When the pandemic began, Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja, who is Muslim, posted on Facebook asking if people would be willing to donate masks, gowns and other PPE that hospitals desperately needed. Within minutes, a flood of people contacted her offering to donate.
“Initially, when this pandemic started, it was about getting medical supplies that I knew our first responders and medical professionals really needed, to make sure they were safe while treating our loved ones,” Dabaja said.
One man had tried to order 100 face shields but only received 40, and wanted to donate them.
“The community’s been great,” said Ahmer Rehman, a doctor who treats COVID-19 patients in the ICU of two Dearborn hospitals. “They’ve been very aware that the government response has been slow and the hospital responses have been slow. They’ve been ordering all kinds of masks from companies and shipping them to the hospitals, dropping them off.”
Rehman said the first wave of coronavirus cases hit in late March.
“It was nonstop chaos,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ramadan has a lot to do with sacrifice. We've been deprived of those things for the past month now, and as Ramadan kicks in you realise, wow, in some ways the last month has been a form of Ramadan.
Every two-to-three hours they had a new COVID-19 patient who needed a ventilator, he said. They would stabilise one patient and another would arrive. “We were OK with ventilators, but we were running short on the sedative medications to keep them in induced comas,” he said.
There were not enough beds. “At one hospital, we held 25 patients, generally. The other hospital held about 16, and so we had to go up in numbers by about 50 to 100 percent,” he said.
There were not enough dialysis machines to treat patients with kidney failure. There were not enough nurses; usually, there is one nurse for every two patients, at the peak of the pandemic, there was one nurse handling four patients, working 18-hour shifts. “They were exhausted,” Rehman said.
One night, the Beaumont Wayne hospital ran out of clean plastic gowns. Nurses worked all night to clean the reusable gowns with disinfectant wipes.
“When I came in, not only were they out of the gowns but they were out of the wipes,” Rehman said. The next morning they were able to sterilise enough gowns to keep up with demand.
That is when the Dearborn community stepped in. As Ramadan began, individuals and local restaurants continued the effort by donating food to hospitals for all to enjoy and for those who are fasting to have something for iftar.
“All kinds of groups are sending food over, to the point where we have some food that’s not being eaten because there’s so much coming in at once that it sits around for a while,” Rehman said, adding that he is grateful for the food, especially when he is on night shift.
The number of COVID-19 patients has significantly declined in recent and healthcare workers are feeling a weight lifted from their shoulders.
Rehman says hospitals are overstaffed with medical workers now, anticipating that numbers will increase again as Michigan reopens, which may happen later this month. The state’s stay-at-home order has been extended to May 28.
“As people start coming out, they are going to be exposed more to this. And there will be an uptick in cases, but hopefully, not to the level it was before,” he said.
“It’s a slower pace now, which is nice during Ramadan because you’re always tired, and can’t have water or coffee,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, who is also chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, said they are trying to find alternative ways to celebrate Eid. A holiday this big demands more than a Zoom meeting. He is looking forward to seeing Dearborn residents compete in a local contest to see who has the best Ramadan decorations.
“The hardest thing is to find ways to have meaningful connections,” Ahmed said. “We’re going to have to ask people to be patient, and I guess this would be one of the sacrifices of Ramadan.”